Where Does the Bernie Sanders Movement Go From Here?
As Sanders tries to maintain this primary battle, his progressive legacy is already beginning to take hold.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two days before the Indiana primary, where polls suggest he is poised to do very well, Bernie Sanders was as combative as he has been about contesting the Democratic National Convention during a press conference on Sunday.
With no talk of how he would want to influence the party platform—something he has prioritized before—he simply claimed that his campaign could persuade superdelegates to come to his side based only on the conclusion that Sanders beats likely Republican nominee Donald Trump in some general election polls.
“If I win a state with 70 percent of the vote, I think I’m entitled to those superdelegates,” Sanders said defiantly, referring specifically to Washington (a state he won by a huge margin) where many elected officials still back Clinton.
But even as the senator from Vermont might not be preoccupied with the longevity of his movement, once the race is said and done, some of his staunchest supporters have moved on to the next phase of the political future. In the same week that the Sanders campaign downsized its staff by hundreds, reported a comparatively low month of fundraising, and refocused a majority of resources on the final delegate-rich contest in California, another coalition was plotting the next step.
Dozens of former Sanders volunteers launched “Brand New Congress” last week, a PAC devoted to backing candidates who mirror Sanders’s progressive agenda.
They hope to grow the coalition from the ground up, as Sanders did with his own campaign.
“America needs an honest, accountable Congress to enact Bernie’s program,” a description for the site reads. “But trying to win each Congressional seat one-by-one is impossible. So let’s run one campaign to replace Congress all at once (except those already on board) that whips up the same enthusiasm, volunteerism and money as Bernie’s presidential campaign.”
It’s as lofty an idea as the prospect of Sanders winning the nomination itself at this point, but it’s imbued with the very political enthusiasm that made him such a successful candidate. Former national organizer Corbin Trent, one of the founders of the group, thinks that Sanders has laid the groundwork for the revolution already.
“Overall the concept is to win a supermajority in Congress that will be able to implement Sen. Sanders’s agenda as legislation,” Trent told The Daily Beast. “To help create a Congress that responds to the needs of working families in America rather than big donors and multinational corporations. We intend to elect a Congress that reverses our slide into oligarchy and reinstates a representative government.”
The focus of the project is the 2018 midterm elections for which Brand New Congress hopes to get a head start right now as Sanders fights for his candidacy’s life for the last two months of the campaign.
According to the organization’s timeline, they hope to recruit viable candidates and organizers between May 2016 and February 2017. By the following month, they want to announce in excess of 400 candidates—to fill every congressional seat—and come to an agreement on central tenets of a unified platform.
From then on, they’d have until November of 2018 to get the candidates’ names out there and campaign as hard as Sanders has campaigned this cycle.
For Trent, and at this point Sanders himself, there are a number of prospective candidates who already fit the bill.
They are progressive Democrats from every part of the country—racially and gender diverse with varying levels of experience in governmental office from Washington state to New York.
The growing roster includes Braddock city mayor John Fetterman, who lost in a recent Senate primary contest in Pennsylvania, Pramila Jayapal, a congressional candidate in Washington, and Zephyr Teachout, running for a House seat in New York.
Fetterman, a kindred spirit in ideology and larger-than-life man of the people status, expressed remorse that he wasn’t able to saddle his campaign to Sanders, thinking it would have helped both of them in the state.
“It would have been a fabulous matchup,” Fetterman, who thinks Sanders’s bid is all but done, told Moyers and Company. “So it just amplified my disappointment when it didn’t happen because the Pennsylvania loss really is a huge setback.”
Perhaps he was right that a partnership would have been a smart move.
Those who have joined Sanders’s informal coalition so far have found their fates tethered to him; if they’re on board, they reap the benefits of name notoriety and untapped financial resources.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the case of Lucy Flores, a Nevada assemblywoman who is running for Congress with a platform that echoes some of the same income inequality tenets.
After Flores endorsed Sanders, the senator from Vermont attached her name to a fundraising email sent out to his vast donor network, propping her up alongside Teachout, whose insurgent 2014 gubernatorial campaign against Andrew Cuomo became the proxy model for Sanders’s own New York fight.
In the first few weeks of April, Flores had raised $428,000 after being named in the email, which was more than her primary opponents put together in the first three months of the year.
“This is very much a revolutionized way that Bernie Sanders has financed a presidential campaign,” Flores, the beneficiary of such revolution, told The Daily Beast. “The sentiment across the board is that this is not over.”
She is one of eight Democratic candidates fighting for the 4th Congressional District election in Nevada in November. And whether or not Sanders ends up being the nominee, his influence has already given her a leg up, at least in notoriety.
“We can be progressive Democrats and win,” Flores said. “I think that you’re going to continue to see a grassroots movement.”
While Sanders may have laid the groundwork for passing down an agenda of progressive politics to the next generation—in the form of providing the framework for a volunteer organization and quite literally boosting individual candidates—the path for him is not quite as certain.
Still that doesn’t mean he’s going quietly or that he’s ready to fully transition from candidate to movement leader.
The senator from Vermont has recently made it clear that he would support frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the all-but-certain nominee barring an isolated attack from an alien life form on her Chappaqua home. Yet the degree to which he will get out there on the stump for her, galvanizing this extraordinary base at his fingertips, is to be determined. Sanders has said he is waiting to see the specifics of Clinton’s platform to make this decision. However, he may already be overestimating the degree to which he can demand a seat at the table.
“The people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be,” he said after losing four of the five contests on April 26, putting further daylight between him and Clinton. “That is why this campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with as many delegates as possible to fight for a progressive party platform.”
The question now—as Sanders commemorated a year since he began this unlikely campaign—is whether the fight for his own candidacy is more important than the political legacy he’ll leave behind when it’s all said and done.
“It’s not just about him, it’s about us,” Flores said, echoing a refrain that has been the central tenet of Sanders’s campaign.